The 1953 masterpiece “Tokyo Story,” by director Yasujiro Ozu, has been voted the greatest film of all time by 358 directors around the world, in a poll released in 2012 by Sight and Sound magazine.
The publication, by the British Film Institute, rated the late Ozu’s classic story of family, loss and change over other films from better-known directors like Federico Fellini, Orson Welles, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick to make the film’s claim to first place.
A related poll of 846 movie distributors, critics and academics, also placed Ozu’s 1949 classic, “Late Spring,” in the top 50 films of all time, along with Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 “Seven Samurai” and 1950 “Rashomon,” as well as director Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1953 “Ugetsu Monogatari.”
Japan’s capturing several of the best film rankings will come as no surprise to fans of Japanese cinema. What makes the status especially impressive, though, is that those films are all set deeply in Japanese culture and history.
“Tokyo Story” has a relatively simple plot. In the film, parents come from the countryside to Tokyo to visit their children, but find they are too busy to spend time with them. Only, their widowed daughter-in-law, the least successful in the family, has maintained her humanity in the blur of Tokyo life. With compassion and touches of humor, the film observes family relationships, the passage of time and the feelings of loss in a changing world.
During his lifetime, Ozu, who lived from 1903 to 1963, completed nearly 50 films, many of them masterpieces. He developed a distinct style that contrasted with classic Hollywood technique.
Observing the small details of daily life with a calm focus on the emotions that drive characters and make them confused and conflicted, he showed characters honestly, with all their strengths and weaknesses.
Ozu’s directing style is often described as minimalistic, but in fact, his films are rich in beautiful details, carefully constructed scenes and closeups of faces that let viewers witness the internal feelings of characters.
His films speak a different cinematic language from most modern films, whose chase scenes, special effects and violence fill DVD players and computer screens these days. Japanese, and especially young Japanese, as well as people around the world, would do well to spend time with the films of Ozu.
Whether one loves the artistry of his cinematic technique, the power of his stories or the timeless human themes he conveys, Ozu’s films rank as a world-class cultural achievement. After all, who would not like to see the best film ever made?